‘Utterly Immoral’ – Robert Keable and ‘Simon called Peter’

Simon Keable-Elliott is the grandson of the novelist Robert Keable, and is understandably interested in his grandfather’s life and work – and especially in Simon called Peter, the book that caused outrage in Britain when published in 1921. It is the story of an Anglican clergyman who goes to war as a chaplain, but starts to lose his faith, partly because the soldiers are not interested in his religious message. He also becomes fascinated by the ‘painted ladies’ who cluster near the soldiers’ bases. Then he meets Julie, a beautiful and very obliging nurse, and he discovers the meaning of life. I read the book a while ago, and thought it highly readable tosh – but it was a huge best-seller (30,000 copies in a year) and undoubtedly spoke to some of the concerns and anxieties of it time. Utterly Immoral: Robert Keable and his Scandalous Novel is the fruit of Simon Keable-Elliott’s researches, and is whole-heartedly recommended to anyone interested in the period, or in representations sof the Great War.

The cover of the book shows Robert Keable with Jolie in Tahiti.

Robert Keable was born into a strict evangelical household; his father was particularly hostile to Catholicism and to the ritualism that the Oxford Movement had worked to introduce into Anglicanism. At Magdalene College, Cambridge, he had spiritually drifted Rome-wards, but became an Anglican priest, first in Bradford, and then in Zanzibar, where he was an enthusiastic missionary, teacher and scoutmaster. In 1914 he tried to enlist as an Army chaplain. He was rejected, maybe because Bishop Taylor-Smith, the Chaplain-General to HM Forces, was himself from the evangelical wing of the Church, and suspicious of anyone with a hint of ritualism about them. Keable later probably tried to enlist as a soldier, but was rejected on the grounds of physical unfitness. (Quite a few young clergymen did enlist, despite the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decree that being a combatant was incompatible with being a priest.)

Keable and his wife went to Basutoland (today known as Lesotho), where he preached enthusiastically in favour of the war effort. Then in 1916 the South African Government announced the formation of the SANLC (the South African Native Labour Corps). When the corps recruited in Basutoland, Keable encouraged his parishioners to join; they would by African standards, be well-paid, at £3 a month, which they could send home to their families. Nearly 1,400 men from Basutoland were enrolled, and chaplains who could speak Basuto were needed,

Keable-Elliott’s chapter on the SANLC is the most interesting in the book. He details the poor treatment of the men; they were housed in camps, much like prisoners-of-war, and their diet was so poor that there were outbreaks of scurvy. Keable was unhappy at the treatment of the men he had encouraged to enlist, and this undoubtedly contributed to his disillusionment. The hero of Simon Called Peter is also a chaplain to a labour corps, but an English one, not African. His disillusionment comes from his increasing sense of the irrelevance of Christianity to the men he was supposed to be caring for.

Cover of an early edition.

Peter in the novel falls for a nurse called Julie; Keable was captivated by one called Jolie. He had been married before the war, but it would seem not to have been a union of much sensuous delight. With Jolie Buck, Keable experienced a transformation which, being the religious-minded man he was, he translated into spiritual terms.

Keable-Elliott is very good on the book’s reception, and the outraged reviews that doubtless added to the novel’s sales. He follows Keable through an unsatisfactory peroiod of schoolmastering to a time when he could credibly live on the proceeds of his writing.

Keable and Jolie had parted at the end of the war, but were reunited and went eventually to live in Tahiti (in Gaugin’s house). Keable’s devout wife would never grant him a divorce, but Jolie chaged her surname to Keable, and they lived together as man and wife, until she died in childbirth.

Keable-Elliott is very good on the fuss surrounding the novel, and on its afterlife (in an American stage production, for example) but does not go in for much literary analysis of Keable’s books, though he quotes interestingly from contemporary reviews. At the time, many who were not outraged considered Simon Called Peter a good book. Is it?

It was Ezra Pound (I think) who produced the tag: ‘Literature is news that stays news.’ by that reckoning, Simon Called Peter is not literature. It spoke to its time, but its concerns have dated. The novel appeared just after the Great War, in which many young people had left the limiting influences of home and family, and had become aware of sexual freedom, and also of religious ideas beyond those of their local church. Simon Called Peter spoke to their concerns and uncertainties, and suggested a new way of thinking beyond conventional sexual morality. The ideas are not so new or surprising now. D.H. Lawrence did the fiction of sexual liberation much better, and even he has, apart from his best work, dated.

So I can’t see the book producing any great resurgence of interest in Robert Keable and his writings – but I can see that this is a book that will be of great interest to anyone trying to understand the literary aftermath of the war. It was a different world a century ago, and this is a book that takes us to some little-known corners of it.


Simon Keable-Elliott has been assiduous in his searching of archives for details of his grandfather’s life and times – but I have explored one archive that he has missed. He gives a good account of how the play was adapted for the stage (not by Keable himself) in America, and of the careful efforts of the producers to make it racy enough to attract an audience, but not so frank that the authorities would try to ban it.

What he has not explored is the failure to get a theatrical version staged in London. In the British Library at St Pancras, the Lord Chamberlain’s archive contains all scripts submitted for the censor’s approval, and also any correspondence relating to them. The correspondence is, of course, especially interesting when the play is rejected as unsuitable for performance, as Simon called Peter was. The script submitted was, I think, the same as the version that had been successfully produced in America.

The initial report by the Lord Chamberlain’s reader was not unsympathetic:

I see no reason for refusing a licence. It would be, I think, an excessive act of authority to prevent a dramatist’s expressing the opinions on the inadequacy of the Church expressed in the play, or representing a parson as ‘sinning’ or even thinking his sin an advantageous experience, especially as he ceases to be a clergyman.

The reader was careful, however, to follow the usual procedure with controversial plays, and to pass the decision to his superior. He suggested that ‘The Lord Chamberlain might like to read at least the last three scenes.’

Lord Cromer

Lord Cromer (the Lord Chamberlain) also followed his usual procedure. He forwarded the play to some Establishment figures, and asked for their comments.

Viscount Ullswater, a prominent Conservative politician, took offence on behalf of soldiers and nurses:

Speaking generally, both officers and nurses would consider the second scene a libel upon them and rightly so. It is evidently written by an American who never went to the war.

Viscount Ullswater, pictured when he had been Speaker of the Commons.

The Bishop of London responded:

I asked at tea whether anyone had read Simon called Peter, and a young officer, the son of the house, said, ‘Why, Bishop, surely you haven’t read that book. I am not too particular but it is the hottest stuff I ever read, and by a Parson, too.’

Then I went up and I have just read the play. The book when it came out scandalised the clergy, and was looked upon as a libel on the Army, but is being forgotten now.

This play, if produced, will of course revive the feeling against it again.

After considering the case of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (‘It shows the prostitute’s profession, if I remember right, as a wretched and dull affair.’) he goes on to imagining Simon Called Peter on stage:

I picture myself taking my house party as I do when I have a free evening to the Theatre, and any nice girl or woman would I think be sick at seeing any man or woman emerging from the bedroom where they had spent the night in their night-dresses, but when one was a parson they would be positively shocked.

Lord Cromer was persuaded that the play was not worthy a licence. He replied to the bishop:

In refusing the licence I have taken my stand on the line that the dramatic conclusion of the play depends upon a public renunciation by a clergyman of the Church of England of one of the most fundamental doctrines upon which the teaching of the church depends, and this is represented in a manner indicated to secure the approval and even enlist the sympathies of the audience, which is unjustifiable.

This file of correspondence shows how uneasy some of the great and good were made by Keable’s book and the play based on it. Simon Called Peter may not have survived too well as living literature, but in the early 1920s it was a book that mattered, because it touched on themes that affected people’s lives.


  1. Dennis Anderson
    Posted November 6, 2022 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for another insightful post. Much appreciated.

  2. Steve Paradis
    Posted December 5, 2022 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    See for yourself:

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